Frank Novak grew up in an old farmhouse in a semi-rural area of New England. With limited Television, he and his brother made their own fun, built their own toys. In early adolescence, their projects grew from their dreams. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns
By Frank Novak
In 1963, a slot car craze overtook the youth (or boys anyway) of America. Slot cars were models, ranging from three to eight inches long, which could be raced on fixed tracks. The track had a grove for each car, and on either side of the grove were strips of metal that carried the electricity to power the car.
I was 15, my brother 13 at the time, and we had a growing obsession with anything automotive. Stacks of “Hot Rod” and “Road and Track” magazines were accumulating in my room, and slot cars were the thing to have.
My brother and I decided that we would build our own slot car track. We wanted something bigger and more real than the cheap sets that were available in the local stores. Looking back, it is hard for me to imagine that we had the confidence to build such a thing from scratch, but nevertheless we laid out a plan for a track based on a real race track in the rolling hills of Lime Rock, Connecticut.
We drew out the sections of our roadway on a large piece of particle board, and cut out the strips with a hand held saber saw. Then the pieces were fastened to a plywood table. The top of the hill and the high straightaway were raised above the level of the plywood on six inch wooden blocks, before the road ran down to the sharp corner at the end.
We cut spacers to gradually raise the roadbed back up the climb to the top of the hill, and there we had our course: an overpass for the fast down-hill straightaway, hard right turn at the bottom of the hill requiring frantic braking, gentle right sweeper after that, sharp right under the bridge, two lefts climbing back up the hill, then a final tight left at the top onto the straight again.
Now it was time to cut the groves. Somewhere we obtained a kit with the materials needed to make our own track, and the kit included a hand held scraper with a tooth-like blade less than a quarter of an inch wide. Over and over we dragged this tool along the particle board until we had two deep groves side by side along all of the roadway, wide enough for the two model cars to race side by side.
After that, metal foil strips with adhesive backing that had come in the kit were pressed tight and smooth on both sides of each grove in the roadway. Wires were attached from these strips to the electrical transformers at the side of the table and the handgrip controls, and the track was ready.
John and I built two cars from kits, each six inches long, and each one was right out of the sports car racing lore of the time. One was a D-Type Jaguar, an open car with an offset drivers’ seat on the right side, which had won the Twenty Four Hours of Le Mans in 1955, ’56 and ’57.
It was instantly recognizable, with large rounded fenders in the front and a batman-like stabilizing fin on the right side behind the driver’s seat. We detailed the car with a British Racing Green paint job and glued a carefully painted driver‘s head and upper torso into the cockpit.
The second car was a model of the Ferrari 250 GTO. Thirty nine of these cars were manufactured by Ferrari between 1962 and 1964, and while they didn’t achieve the racing fame of the earlier D-Type Jaguar, they were the last of the front engine sports cars to be competitive. They had a long, arching and somewhat low hood, a striking windshield that rose up to a hard top roof that sloped down and back to an understated spoiler. I thought then that this car was achingly beautiful, and it remains my favorite car ever made. Of course it was painted Ferrari Red, as any Ferrari should be.
The track and the cars worked amazingly well. The cars were fast, and a lot of skill was required to get them around the track in a hurry. Instead of seeming like toys that skittered around crazily, they had a feel - as the rear end drifted out just a bit when they accelerated out of the hairpin turn onto the sweeping right hand bend – they had a feel of what a real car might be like, the weight of the car pulling sideways against the road, barely on the edge of control.
We raced our cars, worshipped at our altar to the automobile, for maybe a couple of years. Real cars were coming, real roads were coming. In a little more than a year I had my learner’s permit, and soon I would feel the heavy sway of an old junk car as it swept around a long corner, tires twisting and growling against the asphalt.
We were headed out of our cellar of dreams into real world of the late 1960’s, when everything would change, and I for one would wish that I had paid more attention to that time of dreams.